Skip to main content

Objectifying the Consumer

How consumer-centric marketing devalues our humanity

Photo by Eren Li — https://www.pexels.com/@eren-li/

In the marketing technology world of which I am part, huge emphasis is placed on data. In the lingua franca of our industry, analytics, return on ad-spend (ROAS), click-through-rates (CTRs) and many other such metrics are the very air we breathe.

Algorithmic platforms such as Facebook/Instagram, YouTube/Google all serve up content based on measurable metrics and analytics, so that they deliver content that’s tailored to individual wants and interests. At least, that’s what they tell us. But, it’s all about the data at the end of the day.

And, of course, it’s specifically all about the money that can be made from all that juicy data.

This makes sense, considering their business-models are based on the fact that the product they sell is the attention of their users (us), and their customer the advertiser. The content anyone consumes is driven by what can best serve up ads to eyeballs — to people ready to consume, hopped-up on dopamine like cocaine addicts.

We tend to forget that these consumers are people; not eyeballs, but real people — real individual human beings. And each of those people have unique needs, motivations, fears and desires.

However, what they are consuming is driven by bots and algorithms — non-humans. And we (technologists) made the bots.

See any problems with this situation?

In our attention-based economy, we call this “Tuesday.”

As humans, we each have this brain-mushmelon-thing in our heads which craves certain chemicals, neurotransmitters and hormones in order to function at all. We would die without them. We would never be motivated by any instinct to do necessary things like eat, have sex or run away from saber-toothed tigers.

Life, already brutish and short, would be a whole lot shorter.

As a consequence, we are literally creatures of habit. That mushmelon-brain of ours develops habits, hard-wired pathways in our behavioral matrix, which helpfully simplify our existence so we don’t go crazy and die. That hard-wiring is made possible through those chemicals flooding our brains.

Think about this: if you had to think about every action you take — every literal step for example — and make a conscious effort to make the next one, you wouldn’t even be able to walk, much less crawl. Ask any toddler.

We develop the required patterns of muscle movements and coordinated balance through developing a habit of being able to walk without having to think about it. This habit-forming superpower of ours is a really helpful mechanism. It’s great. We develop habits automatically and fairly easily. Some are helpful, but some not so much.

And there’s where our problem starts. In our own heads.

You see, the bot-makers have hacked our collective heads, and lumped us into “market segments” in order to sell our attention to the highest bidder.

It’s our highest vulnerability. What we perceive we need, as driven by those brain chemicals, we pay attention to. Whether or not it is really good for us. We pay attention to what triggers the most satisfying release of chemicals to our hungry-for-more brains. And, what triggers the largest release of those chemicals are the very impulses necessary for our survival: our fears, the need to eat, the need to belong, and the need to procreate.

Sex does sell — but not as well as fear, unfortunately.

Our fears threaten and override all other needs. That saber-toothed tiger in the bushes is not only a predator which may eat us, but also a competitor hunting for the same food we need to survive. If the predator eats all the deer, then we don’t have any. We wouldn’t live long enough to belong to a village which can band together for protection and efficient hunting. We also wouldn’t be around long enough to have sex and procreate in order to create a village in the first place.

Therefore, we naturally pay the most attention to whatever triggers our deepest fears.

That’s what the digital marketing platforms, with all those analytics and bots, have figured out. If we marketers (mea culpa) have figured out how to hack your fears, we can offer you the shiny trinket that will give you hope that you will overcome any threat.

Acquiring the shiny trinket produces dopamine and other feel-good brain chemicals. We naturally want more, so we feel more secure from our fears. So, we develop habits, which quickly form addictions, to the things which will help us overcome. Driven by the marketing machines.

In marketing, when we group many people together with the same fears, needs for belonging and sex-drive with the purpose of selling something to them, we call it a market segment. We call the people visiting our website, users. We strip away the individual, and reduce the whole to consumers, stereotyping and sorting them into profitable consumer markets.

It’s simply not worth it for us to enter the marketplace treating individual people as human beings because we have a million shiny trinkets to sell. We may virtue-signal that we do see people as fellow humans, but we all know this is a crass trick to get an emotional rise out of people so that they form emotional attachments to our sales-pitch.

Why do we do this? So that we marketers, who are also human individuals with the same fears and needs, can make a living like anyone else. However, we do it by hacking collective brains with algorithms and bots to gain attention for our clients — the folks who hire us to sell those million shiny trinkets. And our clients are also humans with the same fears and needs. We all gotta pay the bills, after all.

It all loops around in a circle, like a “dream within a dream.”

In reality, it’s the Circle of Life — and we have hacked it.

And, we know full-well what we are doing. Damn the consequences.

In doing so, we have created a huge problem. This problem boils down to the reality that in order to hack the Circle, we create entire societies of people who think and behave in ways that are manipulated by those bots and algorithms. Manipulated by a technology that doesn’t have fears, needs for belonging, or needs for sex (apologies to any sex-bots reading this, but it’s really not the same thing and we all know it). And manipulated by other humans who aren’t really interested in your own individuality or personal needs and desires but mostly by the money that can be made from the hack.

The sad consequence of all this manipulation is that we are living in societies without empathy. In psychology, those without empathy are known as narcissists, psychopaths and sociopaths — abusers. And, often the abused cope with being manipulated by repressing empathy. The manipulated also become the manipulators. People who treat other people as objects.

This is what manipulating and objectifying the consumer, people, does. It strips away what makes us human. It turns us into nothing more than carbon-based meat-bots. Machines that eat.

We become machines without empathy. Stripped of humanity.

Proving “I am not a robot” on a website lead form seems ironic, doesn’t it?